As Doctor Who’s 60th anniversary approaches it’s important to see this as a time of renewal and yes, regeneration for the show, not just an opportunity to bask in nostalgia and past glories. Doctor Who has to intrigue and excite its core audience of children for the franchise to remain healthy.
Yes, Russell T Davies is coming back as showrunner, but he knows more than anyone else the importance of keeping Doctor Who alive for modern audiences. Yes, he’s brought David Tennant back, but to play the Fourteenth Doctor, a whole new regeneration who even has a different coloured outfit; yes, his Doctor who encounters Donna Noble, who I think we can all agree was a character who still had a great deal of untapped potential, and now we know that the series will be scored by classic-nu-Who-composer Murray Gold, who will be bringing lots of new and exciting ideas.
New and exciting are the watchwords. This isn’t about “resetting” Doctor Who, or “fixing” it to resemble an idealised version of its previous incarnations (that fans at the time hated for not being like even older versions of the show anyway). That said, among all of the old elements returning to Doctor Who this year, perhaps none is more exciting than an actual Christmas Special being shown on – fingers crossed – actual Christmas day!
“For the first time ever, I’m writing a Christmas Special… at Christmas!” Davies said in an interview with Doctor Who Magazine last December. “And this isn’t for next year, no, the 2023 script has been long since signed-off. The new one is for end-of-year 2024!”
This is all part of a plan to see a much more consistent stream of new Doctor Who going forward, which will come as a relief to fans. Since the last anniversary special 10 years ago, we’ve seen only six seasons of Doctor Who, compared to seven seasons in the eight years before that. The new pattern – eight episodes and a Christmas special, “annual Doctor Who, no gap years, lots of content, on and on”, as Davies calls it, is an exciting prospect. But beyond that, Christmas Day just hasn’t been the same since it stopped having a TARDIS in it.
What We Know About the 2023 Christmas Special
We are living in an exciting time for Doctor Who fans, where there is enough new Who in production right now that the production can be simultaneously frustratingly tight-lipped while also allowing Russell T Davies to drop countless hints through his Instagram.
Stitching those hints together to form a complete picture is a real act of detective work, but it looks likely that the 2023 Christmas special, which will follow on from the three 60th anniversary specials in November, will air on the 25th of December. It will appear on BBC One and iPlayer in the UK, and Disney+ everywhere else.
We also know that it will be the debut story for new companion Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson), and the first proper outing for the Fifteenth Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa).
The special will also feature a guest appearance from a character first seen in 2005. We don’t know who yet but are crossing our fingers for a dramatic Clive resurrection. Set photographers have also given us a glimpse of Gatwa’s outfit, and really stretched the definition of “spoiler warning” by showing us the Christmas episode will feature some snow (or disintegrated spacecraft, or alien dandruff- it’s too soon to say).
Also, from the look of this sneakily snapped clapper board and Murray Gold’s comments in the June edition of Doctor Who Magazine, the 2023 special will be directed by ‘The Ghost Monument’ and ‘Rosa’ director, Mark Tonderai.
An Instant Tradition
Doctor Who nerds who really want to show off their credentials will tell you that the first Doctor Who Christmas special ‘The Feast of Steven’, the seventh episode of twelve(!)-part Hartnell serial, ‘The Dalek Master Plan’. It’s a comic interlude an otherwise pretty grim and gritty classic Who story, involving the TARDIS getting mistaken for an actual police box and the Doctor breaking the fourth wall to wish the viewers a Merry Christmas.
After that the next Christmas-themed Doctor Who episode is 2005’s ‘The Unquiet Dead’, featuring Charles Dickens, ghosts and snow, but unfortunately going out on an unseasonable 9th of April.
The first actual Doctor Who Christmas Special was ‘The Christmas Invasion’, David Tennant’s first story, featuring robot Santas, killer Christmas trees, an alien killed with a satsuma (kids’ show!) and a climax that referenced Thatcher ordering the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands War.
Immediately it became a fixture of Christmas Day, underpinning BBC One’s entire Christmas Day schedule with almost guaranteed top ratings. As well as Tennant’s first episode, the Christmas Specials would go on to see the regenerations of Tennant, Smith and Capaldi. It also brought in a higher class of guest stars than Who usually got even during its peak, with one-off appearances from Kylie Minogue, Michael Gambon, Nick Frost, and Richard E Grant.
The specials became such a fixture that outgoing showrunner Steven Moffat stayed on for longer just to make sure that the Christmas magic happened as scheduled.
“I was going to leave at the end of series 10 – I had my finale planned and what I wanted to do with it. I had a good notion of that. Then I learned at a drinks event somewhere that Chris didn’t want to start with a Christmas, so at that point, they were going to skip Christmas,” Moffat told Digital Spy in 2017.
“Doctor Who would’ve lost that slot if we hadn’t [done a special] because Christmas Day is now so rammed. So I said, probably four glasses of red wine in, ‘I’ll do Christmas!’ and then had to persuade Peter [Capaldi] that’s how we were leaving. Then I had to work out how you could get mortally injured in one episode and spend an hour regenerating on Christmas Day, which I hopefully have done!”
Yet when Chris Chibnall took over the reins, it seems he didn’t just want to avoid starting with Christmas. He was done with Christmas altogether.
Christmas is Cancelled
Before all the blame is placed on Chibnall, he wasn’t the first to think that the festive special might be played out. Moffat himself has said, “I sort of think we might have mined, and possibly over mined, every single thing we could about Christmas in Doctor Who and the last time we more or less ignored it.”
The BBC, or at least some unnamed executives who will stand in for “the BBC” here, apparently agreed.
“The BBC was saying, ‘There’s been a lot of Doctor Who Christmas specials, there’s been a lot of stories with snow in,” Chibnall said during his Exit Interview with Radio Free Skaro.
The thinking was that New Year’s Day was starting to look like the new sexy proving ground for big drama. “Sherlock would play there, Dracula would play there, Happy Valley plays there now,” Chibnall said. “So it’s like, well, let’s try that the first year and see what happens.”
Perhaps wanting to avoid being cast as a Kazran Sardick (the Ebenezer Scrooge-alike from 2010’s ‘A Christmas Carol’), Chibnall added, “It’s not like I hate the Christmas specials. I love them! I love them. And actually Spyfall was going to go out on Christmas Day, and then it was too scary. It was the editorial policy.”
So instead of Christmas, we saw the introduction of New Year Doctor Who Specials, like ‘Resolution‘, ‘Revolution of the Daleks’, and ‘Eve of the Daleks’. It was heavily Dalek-based, basically. But the fact is that a giant TARDIS shaped-hole still remained in Christmas Day. And had Christmas-themed Doctor Who episodes well really run dry?
It’s true that we’ve seen the Doctor do all the Christmas staples. We’ve had Robot Santas, A Christmas Carol, Actual Santa, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Killer Snowmen, the Christmas Day Armistice, the Titanic, ummm, Superheroes, a giant spider crashing a wedding day, everyone turning into John Simm…
But there is also so much more that remains untapped. Give us the Doctor versus the Nutcracker Prince. The Doctor does A Wonderful Life. We’ve yet to see the Doctor crawling around the air vents of Nakatomi Plaza trying to single-handedly take out a heist posing as a terrorist attack, and I think that is a huge missed opportunity.
An opportunity that will hopefully be rectified now, with not one, but two Christmas Specials planned for the next couple of years, and more to come. Christmas is coming!
Doctor Who returns first for the 60th anniversary specials in November, followed by the Series 14 Christmas special airing in December.